Vital Symposium

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Historical Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
I wrote Vital Symposium in a class I took at UCLA. Writing it was a great experience. Do you know who the stranger is from the story??? Feedback is welcome :)

Submitted: February 09, 2014

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Submitted: February 09, 2014

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It was a bustling day in the city of Athens, around 400 B.C.  The grand marketplace of Agora was swarming with people.  The golden sun above made the surrounding hills shimmer, but even the sun was no match for the blazing movement of the market below.  There was fresh fish caught from the morning, artisans showing the glory of their work cut in stone, and Greek members of the assembly passing through the crowd with bright white tunics and deep purple sashes.  The energy of conversation and flourishing commerce marked an Athens at its height of culture and prosperity.

Thousands of trading stands made of simple wooden poles with dusty hanging canopies sprawled over downtown Athens.  In some rare free space in a corner of the market, there stood a man who was garnering the attention of a growing number of people. The man held an outward appearance that was the reverse of what Athenians considered graceful and beautiful.  He was dustier than the canopies and muddier than the morass of the lowlands after a heavy rain, but his presence was nevertheless remarkable.  As though he offered free pottery or exotic fruits, the crowd wriggled their way as close as possible to hear him speak.

“I, Socrates, have stumbled upon the fortune to have provided benefit to Pericles.  By helping him to see the path he already knew himself, Pericles has strengthened our relations with the Spartans.  At last, we have united the most honored and capable city states to stand against future aggressors who threaten the republic.  The good dealings with Sparta will afford us peace and the contemplation to further the great city of Athens.”

Aristophanes, though commonly holding an aversion to Socrates and his philosophical teachings, had admiration for him on this day and went to stand beside him.  Aristophanes was suave and wealthy, and the most revered playwright in all of Greece.  The crowd shifted to him as he moved to stand next to Socrates.

“Great Socrates.  Friend.  Let us hold a banquet in your honor for your part in the union with Sparta.  It shall be tonight in the hall of Centuries, where the moonlight will shine silver waves upon us as we drink and talk. You will be the lead of this Symposium, and you will bring the discussion and games of your choosing.  I will invite several men of great disposition.  Of special mention, I invite the Stranger from the East.  He comes from a far off place, and is a man of a kind you have never known.”

***

As the sun subsided and moon rose, about a dozen men gathered in the Hall of Centuries for the Symposium in honor of Socrates.  The hall was a simple but powerful structure made of thick marble columns that surrounded the men and used the starry sky as its ceiling.  Aristophanes had ornate couches placed in the hall along will servants with wine and food trays.  Beautiful women played flute softly. 

As in all Symposia, the plan for the men was to sit or lie on the couches and drink red wine over discussion.

The mood of the evening began celebratory, and Socrates found himself elated from the encomium.  Though respected for his sharp and logical methods, most men detested his relentless commitment to unearthing the truth.Proving the false to be in fact false made him an unpopular person to the same men who now encircled him with raised wine glasses.

 

“…And that, my companions, is the meaning of justice as best I have allowed myself to comprehend,” Socrates remarked in a manner more certain than was his norm.  The men all appeared in accord with his statements, and pleased with the evening’s progression.

The Stranger from the East, brought by the great playwright Aristophanes, was silent and motionless during the last two hours of back and forth dialogue.  Aristophanes had invited the Stranger due to his ability to seemingly hypnotize a wild snake into submission at the market earlier. 

The Stranger finally began to speak, and directed a remark towards Socrates.  “You have said many words.  Words with a style of both silk and rock.  But the substance of them is a wind that barely moves the air beneath.”

“That sounds like something Socrates would say to me!” Aristophanes shrieked as he laughed and wine from his glass splashed red on the marble floor.

“My neighbor from afar, do you possess knowledge of greater worth than the meaning of Justice?” asked Socrates.

“No,” said the Stranger. 

 

His one word response brought attention to how different he was amongst the men of Athens.  He had not a hair anywhere on his head.  His skin was tan, as was theirs from the summer, but of a different hue altogether.  He wore a long wool robe that covered both shoulders and swayed down the length of his entire body.  He appeared meek and potent simultaneously, and emanated a force that caused the group to abstain from speaking when he appeared focused. 

After the long pause, Socrates huffed slightly and then formed the question, “Then what do you know?”

“I know nothing,” he replied.

This made Socrates cheerful again.  “Well then, we share something very singular and real.  I have also proclaimed my lack of wisdom.  From this discovery, in a matter of utter surprise, the Oracle of Delphi reputed me as the most wise man of Athens.  The realization that one knows nothing is wisdom.  You and I are the same.”

“The same, we are not.  Awareness is further from you than I am from home.”

 

“Well, Stranger far from home” said Socrates “I enjoy your skepticism, but must ask that you expound on what you mean.  You claim to take away my vision, but you have not shown how you yourself see anything.  What knowledge do you have to share with us?”

“I do not think in your terms.  You claim to examine the nature of things, but your claims are desolate.  Your mind is closed,” said the Stranger.

Aristophanes interjected “The Stranger who was so quiet is now so intriguing.  Stranger, if you and Socrates are so different, then show us how something Socrates claims to be true is in fact false.  Surely, you will be the first of us ever to do so!”

With calmness and a slow motion of his hands coming together so the tips of his fingers touched, the Stranger asked Socrates “tell me, with all your being, what is the meaning of existence?”

Socrates replied with minimal verve,  “This question is the ultimate question, and held most closely to me of all the questions I have asked and attempted to answer.  It appears to me insensible to revisit it with someone such as yourself.  I only say this because you are likely not to follow the meaning, and the topic is sure to bore the fine patrons here in attendance.”

Aristophanes and several others urged the conversation onward.  Everyone, except for Socrates and the Stranger, was drinking heavily and entertained quite satisfactorily from the odd statements and peculiar disposition of the Stranger.  Plus, they enjoyed the way the Stranger seemed to carefully position Socrates into a vice that was about to close on him.

“Very well, Stranger,” said Socrates.  “The meaning of all existence lays in one’s possession of virtue and a life spent in search of the good.  This brings glory to one’s life and pleases the gods.”

The Stranger replied, “You appear to focus on the singularity of the individual in this quest.  Man’s glory for his own sake, and to please the gods.  Is that true?”

“Yes, it is true,” said Socrates.

“It is in your importance of individuality that our views split in opposite directions.  From where do you derive your virtue?” said the Stranger.

“As a philosopher, knowledge of the nature of things as they truly are leads me towards decisions that are virtuous,” said Socrates, slightly rattled from the bombardment of questions.

“And how do you learn and obtain knowledge of the nature of things?” said the Stranger, visibly deepening his focus. 

Aristophanes was lying down, but straightened himself upright and leaned forward as the discussion between Socrates and the Stranger ripened.

“As I have told my dearest friend Plato, we do not learn, but that what we call learning is recollection.”

The Stranger responded, “In this, the view that there is a recollection, an innateness in all we learn, we are the same.  We are close to discovering how aware you truly are.  In all of your recent days, you spend every waking moment in utter contemplation to achieve this recollection, is this true?” said the Stranger, in a reflective and almost disappointed tone, which Socrates sensed.

“Yes, my mind moves fast like the ocean’s waves so it can crash quickly on the shores of knowledge and bring back truth,” said Socrates, speaking quickly and with no reflection.

“Yes.  Your mind ceases to pause, and prefers to crash loudly to gain possession of knowledge.  You view knowledge as a thing in the same manner a beggar views a gold coin.  You can never get enough and your desire grows the more you obtain.But let me ask you, are happiness and goodness related?” said the Stranger, with focus and ease in his voice.

The flute players were playing ever so softly now, and even tilted to hear the conversation between Socrates and the Stranger for their own ears.  The men of the Symposium were not gorging themselves with food, nor holding separate intimate conversations, as was the usual; they were keenly focused on the discussion at hand.Aristophanes and the other men, mostly high officials from the assembly of the Republic of Athens, had reverted back to their disdain for Socrates.  To see Socrates without the complete command of discourse finally gave them the satisfaction of being able to say he had been wrong, or at least ineloquent, if only this one time.  The men did not like the Stranger or in fact care for the words he spoke, but derived their pleasure from Socrates being torn down by a distorted mirror image of himself. 

Socrates responded with hesitation “Yes, happiness and goodness are very close to one another.”

“Is your greatest happiness from the knowledge you feel you have obtained over the years?  The same knowledge that leads you to virtue, the good life, and bringing glory to the gods?”

Socrates was now feeling caged in much the same way he imagined he made others feel when he questioned their assertions about virtue, justice, and love. 

“Yes,” replied Socrates.

“Close your eyes, and let us dive to find the truth.  Socrates, forget all of your desire for knowledge and let your mind be still a moment…  Now, search deeply but without strain.  Search deeply; when in your entire life were you most happy?  What is the first manifestation that flows through you?”

Socrates’ eyes were closed and the memory came to him.  “It was when I was a stonemason, years and years ago.  I was just a boy then.  It was even before I entered the Athenian army.”

“What was it about being a stonemason that brought you happiness?” said the Stranger.

Socrates’ eyes were still shut as he spoke, “As a stonemason, sometimes I could work giant slabs of marble for hours and be driven by a pure love of the moment for what I was doing.  I desired nothing more.  In my hand I held a mallet or chisel, and I would form the rock effortlessly, and for no other reason than the act itself.  When I was done for the day, I could admire the artifacts or structures I had created, but it was in the moment of making them that brought me happiness.”

The Stranger was looking down, and raised his head to reflect on what Socrates’ had found inside himself.  “It was at this point in your life you were closest to being who you really are.  Cutting the stone, you experienced a oneness with all life, with all the gods, that you have since lost.  All the knowledge you have since desired, it has only accumulated to slam a wall between you and real happiness.”

In the very beginning their conversation, Socrates felt like he held a bow with a sharpened arrow aimed directly towards the Stranger.  Now, somehow, the bow took the tension of the flexed wood and instead plunged the arrow through Socrates’ own mind, and heart.

Aristophanes preyed on Socrates’ disenchantment.  “See that you old bAAAstard!  You should have drunk my wine while you had the chance. Seeing you sit there, confused by this Stranger from afar, you are laughable at best.  In fact, my next play will be a comedy about you!  I will call it The Clouds, in reference to the hot air you speak that the Stranger so flatteringly pointed out early in the evening.”

The Stranger did not turn his head to view or listen to Aristophanes.  Instead, he remained focused on Socrates, awaiting his next words.

Socrates sat motionless, gloom surrounding him.  He looked with glassy eyes at the empty palms of his languid hands.  He felt the eyes of the men upon him, and imagined in his mind what they saw of him.He saw of himself a hopeless, froggy looking, cock eyed vagabond with a demolished past and no way forward. 

He stood up, and walked about ten feet to reach a view of the Agora marketplace in the valley below.  Socrates was lost after realizing that as a stone mason, ages ago, he was closer to truth than his was on this day.  “Who is he… from where in the east…” Socrates muttered to himself as he surveyed his surroundings.  The market was hushed; a black and grey version of the colorful cascade it once was.  Smoke billowed from an unknown source in the market; “a sign of hope?”  Socrates thought to himself. 

“What will you do now, oh wise Socrates!”  Aristophanes yelled from behind as the others joined in to heckle the wisest man in Greece.  The Stranger remained silent and focused. 

“I have forgotten how to breathe.  I have forgotten my hands.  How to remember…”

The Stranger stood up and walked over to stand by Socrates and said, with a voice as calm as dawn, “You are empty now; there is nothing healthier than this.  It is the end of suffering.  I myself was once a prince; I unlearned that existence as you must unlearn yours.” 

Socrates found serenity in the meaning of the statement.  His life was devoted to learning, but it was a rapacious devotion, and appeared hallow after examination.  Now, he would be devoted to unlearning what he knew in the traditional sense.  Socrates began to grip his hands together as if packing and re-molding something.

He turned, put his eyes across all the men who had fouled him, and said, “All the gods, neither Zeus nor Athena, could send down the gift that this Stranger has given.  Emptiness.  A paradox.  A calling of no sound…”

A squat member of the assembly plopped off one of the couches, brought his wine glass full way above his head, and smashed it with all his power.  “Heresy!” he proclaimed.

Aristophanes rose, appearing more like a general than a playwright, and put his fists at his sides in a stance of victory.  With a cantankerous grin he called out:  “Soldiers, bring these two lunatics to the holding chambers of the tribunal.  Socrates has renounced the gods, and will die for it.”

Two soldiers wearing heavy bronze masks entered from the shadows with massive pikes clenched by giant hands.

“Any last babblings before you are dragged away like bags of wheat?”  Aristophanes said.

 

 

The Stranger from the East was as still as ever,

almost disappearing into himself.

“You look like you’re going somewhere…” Socrates commented to the Stranger.

0clip_image002.png\",” said the Stranger from the East.  He spoke the word in a foreign tongue Socrates could not place.

Socrates faced the guards. He leaned his face right up to their pikes.  He told them both slyly, “Don’t ever become a philosopher. You two look like you’ll do a fine job of avoiding that livelihood, but don’t be two puppets for Aristophanes all your life either.”

With rejuvenated composure, he announced to everyone in a loud and commanding tone: “I no longer identify my existence with knowledge.  I have reached a new dimension of consciousness.  I have wisdom, oneness.  I have no Apology.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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